Embrace the Calling and Avoid Drowning: Homily for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

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1 Corinthians 3:9-17; St. Matthew 14:22-34

             In my experience as a college professor, I have found that students who forget that they are students usually do not do very well in their classes. The same is true of employees, athletes, musicians, parents, and spouses who ignore their distinct identities and responsibilities.  In order to accomplish anything, we have to accept who we are, stay focused, and faithfully fulfill the duties that our particular calling gives us.  Otherwise, we will fail in what we set out to do.

St. Paul had to address all kinds of deep problems in the confused and divided church at Corinth.  In today’s epistle lesson, he challenged them to recognize that they had a unique identity that gave them a demanding calling.  He told them that they are “God’s field, God’s building,” even a holy temple of the Lord.  If you have read his letters to the Corinthians, you can imagine how far these people probably seemed to themselves and others from being anywhere close to fulfilling that exalted identity. Despite their immorality, lack of love for one another, and deep confusions about the faith, St. Paul refused to allow their brokenness to define them.  Instead, he insisted that their true foundation is Jesus Christ in Whom they are “God’s fellow workers” in building up His Body, the Church.

In some ways, the Corinthians had a lot in common with St. Peter in today’s gospel lesson when he turned his attention away from Christ as he walked on the water with Him in the midst of a storm.  When the Savior enabled him to do so, Peter focused on the wind and the waves and was overcome by fear.  At that point, he fell back on his own resources and repudiated his identity and calling as someone given a share in the miraculous power of Christ.  So he began to sink, until he came to his senses and cried out “Lord, save me!”  The Savior’s response gets to the heart of the matter:  “O man of little faith, why did you doubt?”

That is precisely what Jesus Christ says to each and every one of us when we do not accept fully His high calling and blessing as members of His Body, as His temple, as His coworkers, as those whose very life is built upon Him as our only true and sure foundation.  Like St. Peter, we sink down time and time again because we forget who we are and define ourselves by our sins and weaknesses. The problem is not that we have a simple slip of memory; it is that we welcome distractions that divert our attention from fulfilling our calling and duty.  We voluntarily become lax and lazy in the Christian life because we find other things more appealing at the moment.  That is not surprising because we are broken and weak people who live in a world of corruption in which it is so easy to fall into the idolatry of worshipping the false gods of our own desires.  But it is tragic because our Lord calls us to such a higher dignity, to a blessedness that infinitely transcends the momentary pleasure of giving in to passion and temptation.

Think for a moment about where our sins have led us, about how they have weakened us, harmed others, and presented burdens that do not easily go away.  We can easily drown ourselves and others in them.  Just as a building with a faulty foundation will never be stable, we will never find healing, peace, and strength by being more fascinated by sin than by holiness.  No one ever became good at any task by refusing to give it attention, by directing their energies elsewhere.  And we will never grow as Christians if we treat faithfulness as an afterthought, as an unimportant endeavor that we might get around to some day when there is nothing better to do.  There is no dimension of the Christian life that does not require discipline and self-sacrifice.  If we are not intentionally embracing our identity in Him, then we risk drowning in sin without even recognizing it.  We are in as dangerous as position as someone living in a house not built squarely on a solid foundation.  We are inviting our own collapse.

Of course, it is easy to ignore these truths. Perhaps we take solace in comparing ourselves to the decadence of contemporary culture or of people who at least seem worse off than we are spiritually or morally—as though it were our place to judge them.  Maybe we define ourselves by our jobs, possessions, pastimes, abilities, physical appearance, education, or other worldly accomplishments that ultimately serve our own pride.  We may have watered down our faith to the point of thinking that as long as we have warm feelings toward Christ and are good citizens that all is well.

These may be coping mechanisms for navigating the world on its own terms, but they remain distractions from building squarely on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As appealing as they may be, they cannot raise us up from drowning in our own sins.  They cannot fulfill in us the high calling of God’s fellow workers and holy temple.  They are simply excuses for not building on the one true foundation of our souls.

During these first two weeks of August, we observe the period of the Dormition Fast, when we commemorate the end of the earthly life of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We fast during this period because we want to follow her example of focusing on the one thing needful of hearing the word of God and keeping it.  Our Lord’s Mother became God’s holy temple in a unique way when she contained within Her own womb the One who is uncontainable, the Eternal Son of God.  By saying “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” she demonstrated that she was truly a fellow worker with God, “God’s own field” in a unique way for the salvation of the world through the Incarnation of her Son.         All generations call her blessed, and we should all look to her as the best example of how to build our lives on the one true foundation of Jesus Christ.  As we celebrate on the Feast of the Dormition on August 15, the Theotokos was the first to follow Christ– body, soul, and spirit–into the heavenly kingdom.  There is no better model for how to be a faithful Christian.

The Virgin Mary prepared for her unique role by a life dedicated to prayer and purity, and her path was in no way easy. But she refused to be distracted from her high calling and identity, even though she certainly received no affirmation from the society in which she lived.  Remember that she was the mother of someone rejected as a blasphemer and publically executed as a traitor.  Nonetheless, the Theotokos fully embraced her identity as the Mother of God and lived accordingly.  Let us take her as our example, steadfastly refusing to take our eyes off Jesus Christ as we endure the winds and waves of our own sick souls and of life in our corrupt world.  Let us invest our time and energy staying true to our foundation and the glorious identity that He has given us.  Whenever we begin to be distracted, let us have the spiritual clarity to cry like St. Peter, “Lord, save me!”   And through it all, let us remember Who our Savior is and who He enables weak and distracted people like you and me to become:  His fellow workers, His field, His holy temple, and even members of His own Body.

 

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